Calamity Jane (1953) – Buckskin has the Queerest Subtext

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When examining cinema, one must tread lightly into the world of subtext. All too often, critics and academics impose unrelated messages onto films. They create elaborate meanings for texts when there is no evidence to support their theories. Yet sometimes there are films where the subtext is so obvious, it flashes in you eyes like a giant neon sign. The musical “Calamity Jane” is gay. And by gay, I mean it’s about homosexuality. Just as “Lethal Weapon,” was a coming out film disguised as a buddy cop movie, “Calamity Jane” is a lesbian love story disguised as a charming musical starring Doris Day.

“Calamity Jane” is an extremely loose interpretation of the life of Martha Jane Canary (Doris Day), who in real life scouted for the U.S. Army, appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and didn’t have bleach blonde hair. It takes place in Deadwood, a town much cleaner and less vulgar than the HBO version. The story begins when a drag show goes wrong, and the proprietor of a local theater gets in a sticky situation with Deadwood’s men. Promising to help the owner, Calamity Jane travels to Chicago to find a famous singer to bring back to Deadwood. She meets Katie Brown (Allyn Ann Mclerie) a maid with dreams of performing on the big stage. The two women head back to Deadwood in order to make both their dreams come true.

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On the surface, the film appears to be an apocryphal love story between Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). Yet the real love story is between Jane and Katie, who are a proto-lesbian couple tramping through this musical. The signs are so obvious it’s incredible this picture was released in the 1950’s. For instance when the women first meet, Katie is in a state of undress. Jane notices this this and remarks how pretty Katie is.

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Later in the film, Jane and Katie move into a secluded cottage in the forest. The two begin sprucing up the cabin while singing the unsubtly titled “Woman’s Touch.” Yet the most damning piece of evidence is the film’s best-known song, “Secret Love.” Near the end of the film, Doris Day, sporting a smart buckskin suit and tie, sings about having a secret love, hiding her true feelings, and finally throwing her love out into the open. And while the song is supposed to be about Wild Bill Hickok, anyone who’s paid any attention will know whom Jane is really singing about

Apart from “Secret Love” there are great musical numbers, and genuinely funny moments throughout the film. Social Justice Warriors be warned, this movie came out in 1953, so don’t expect any politically correct representations of the Lakota. That being said, I think this film is worth a watch if only for the subtext. As I said before, one should be wary of finding a hidden meaning where there is none. Yet I challenge you to watch “Calamity Jane” and tell me I’m wrong.

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